Will China be a factor in the elections?

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Communications and Multimedia Minister Salleh Said Keruak recently offered three reasons why Barisan Nasional (BN) can expect a significant increase in support from the Chinese community at the next general elections – “the opposition’s shortcomings despite being given the opportunity; Malaysia’s good relations with China; and, the good moral politics practiced by the BN.” (Bernama, 5th February 2017)

It is an astonishing assertion to say the least!

In the first place, by any reckoning, the Opposition in both Selangor and Penang has, in fact, performed far better than previous UMNO-BN governments. In a few short years, corruption and waste are significantly down; there is greater accountability and transparency and people are better off than before. And this despite the unrelenting hostility and lack of cooperation from the federal government.

The Opposition may have their shortcomings but there’s little doubt that if they ever came to power at the federal level, Malaysia would be the better for it.

As for the claim that BN practices “good moral politics,” it is so risible that it isn’t even worth a second thought.

The China card

The reference to China, on the other hand, is significant if only for the mind-set it reveals. It suggests that the minister considers Malaysian Chinese more parochial than patriotic, that the Chinese community will overlook the bigotry and racial prejudice perpetrated against them as well as the injustice, corruption and scandal that have blighted our nation simply because they prize good relations with China.

Acting on this belief, UMNO-BN ministers have assiduously sought to co-opt China into their elections strategy in the expectation that China’s ringing endorsement of the current Malaysian leadership will play out well with Malaysian Chinese.

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At the ground level, a senior UMNO minister even went so far as to accompany the Chinese ambassador around as the ambassador distributed Chinese government assistance to Malaysian Chinese schools, something that was always frowned upon in the past.

The MCA too appears to be counting on China’s endorsement to restore its fortunes as the party of choice for Malaysian Chinese. By setting up a PRC affairs committee and an OBOR (One Belt One Road) centre, the MCA is clearly hoping to convince Malaysian Chinese that its close relationship with China will bring huge dividends to the Malaysian Chinese community through lucrative deals, projects and other businesses.

But is relations with China a key election issue for Malaysian Chinese?

Even a cursory survey of Malaysian Chinese attitudes suggests otherwise. In fact, their key concerns – security, education, tolerance and good governance – are not even on Salleh’s radar. 

Security and safety

There is no doubt that Malaysian Chinese have been quite traumatized by the rising level of anti-Chinese sentiment in the country as well as the threat of racial violence.

red-shirtsFor many, the 2015 Petaling Street affair – when senior UMNO leaders shamefully stood by and did nothing even as the Red Shirts threatened a bloodbath – was a turning point; it indicated that Malaysian Chinese could no longer count on UMNO-BN for their safety and survival.

Frustrated at the lack of government action and fearful for their safety, many Malaysian Chinese, and others as well, applauded when the Chinese ambassador finally intervened to stop things from getting out of hand.

Those who believe that China might provide some protection for Malaysian Chinese might, therefore, welcome closer relations with China; not because of any loyalty per se to their ancestral homeland but simply in the hope that it would bring a measure of stability.

Some also harbour the hope that closer relations with China might somehow forestall the growing drift towards Islamic extremism in Malaysia, another area of great concern to Malaysian Chinese as well as to other Malaysians. They reason that the more indispensible China is to Malaysia’s economic well-being and to UMNO-BN’s survival, the less UMNO would want to scare them away with any dramatic Islamization initiatives.

Whether China can or will provide such a security blanket is, however, an open question.

Observers have argued, for example, that the Chinese ambassador’s intervention in the Petaling Street affair was aimed more at avoiding the kind of internal instability that could jeopardize China’s economic and political gains in the country rather than out of any particular concern for Malaysian Chinese.

Education

It is no secret that Malaysian Chinese also place a very high premium on education and the opportunities that a good education provides. It is, after all, education that transformed a ragtag bunch of largely indentured labourers into an economic powerhouse that Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi recently described as “the group that will carry the nation forward.”

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In this context, the Chinese school system occupies a special place in the Malaysian Chinese psyche. It is more than just education; it is about inculcating traditional values, culture and language. Its very existence is a psychological beacon of hope and comfort, an assurance that their language, culture and identity will endure.

When the Chinese school system is condemned as unconstitutional, detrimental to national integration and threatened with closure, when the United Examination Certificate is refused recognition, when funds are withheld, it is, rightly or wrongly, perceived as a thinly veiled attack on the Malaysian Chinese community itself.

After all, how is it justified to demand the closure of Chinese schools on the grounds of national unity when Chinese schools today are more integrated than national schools, when foreign English-medium private schools proliferate, when monoracial educational and religious institutions continue to flourish with government support?

To be sure, we have a serious national unity issue in this country that needs urgent attention. However, the way to build unity must surely be through consultation, cooperation and accommodation rather than further marginalizing besieged minorities or demonizing them for political expediency.

Tolerance 

As well, Malaysian Chinese are deeply concerned, even grieved, over the way they have been racially harassed and taunted by many from within UMNO and PAS itself.

It hurts that even after more than a century of living in Malaysia and contributing to its development as much as anyone else, they are still considered interlopers, intruders and “pendatangs.” It hurts when they are taunted as unpatriotic, as disloyal, as ungrateful. It hurts when decades of blood, sweat and tears in the service of their nation are dismissed as irrelevant or deliberately downplayed. Or that their votes are not solicited with promises of wise policies but demanded with threats of punishment and retribution.

And it hurts when those who come from countries like Indonesia are permitted to be proud of their heritage while Malaysian Chinese must always be watchful lest they be accused of chauvinism and disloyalty.

Sure, no community is without their faults but the constant racist polemics is discouraging, discomforting and disquieting.

Good governance 

Finally, there is the issue of good governance.

Like other Malaysians, Malaysian Chinese are sick and tired of the corruption and abuse of power that has become commonplace in our nation today.

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It was this concern that compelled thousands of them to join their fellow citizens in participating in the BERSIH rallies, despite the threats and intimidation, to press for political change, for respect for the constitution and for good and clean governance.

Malaysian Chinese, in fact, feel insulted that politicians like Salleh think they can be won over simply on the promise of good relations with China. They are, first and foremost, Malaysians and it is national issues like good governance, justice and respect for diversity that matter far more to them than relations with China. 

Malaysian Chinese want what other Malaysians want

If UMNO-BN wants to win the support of Malaysian Chinese, it does not need to look to China; it simply needs to treat them with respect and dignity as fellow citizens of this nation we all call home.

In the final analysis, Malaysian Chinese want what everybody else in Malaysia so desperately wants – good governance, security, respect for our constitution and for the rights of all citizens irrespective of race or religion, and the opportunity to pursue their dreams and live in peace with their fellow citizens.

And the answer to that is not found in Beijing but in Putrajaya.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 10th February 2017